We are considering again a theme we had reason to consider already several times in the prophecy to this point. I hope this evening to treat it in a somewhat more comprehensive fashion and help us to think about this prophecy, and all such prophecies, in a way that is particularly meaningful to us as followers of Jesus Christ today.
A new section of the book begins at 12:1, as indicated by the phrase “The burden of the word of the Lord…” This is the final section of the book. We encountered the same phrase at 9:1 and we said there that the phrase often introduces an oracle or prophesy that has ominous import. That is what we shall find here. And, as one commentator puts it: “With the opening of chapter 12 the pace begins to quicken.” [Webb, 154]
v.1 Here we are reminded, as so often in the Bible, of the fundamental importance of the doctrine of divine creation. It matters absolutely whether the God we are talking about, the God who is speaking to us about our future is in fact the God who made the heavens and the earth and who made us, all of us and each one of us! We tend to forget when we argue about creation as a matter of scientific debate in the early 21st century that what is at stake is the Lord’s rule of history. If God did not make the world, the nexus, the connection between creation and providence is broken. It is hard to believe that God rules a world he did not make and controls a world that is not his. If his dominion did not produce the world, can we believe that he rules the world in which we live and can we believe that our lives and the fortunes of the church of God are entirely under his control?
Unbelievers see this very clearly. That is why the Christian claim that God created the world is so important to them. Richard Dawkins, a modern champion of Darwinism, has said that Darwinism – effectively the view that the world and everything in it arose by chance – “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” In other words, remove God from the creation of the world and you remove him altogether. He may be there – theoretically – but for all practical purposes he might as well not be. The death of divine creation is the death of divine providence, of divine rule. And that death — at least in the mind of the opinion shapers of our time — is key to understanding the modern world.
Those real Christians — and there are, alas, a good number nowadays — who imagine that we can make peace with evolution as a theory of human origins and still somehow retain the Bible’s worldview are wrong, profoundly wrong. That position has been tried and has repeatedly failed since the publication of The Origin of the Species in 1859, and people should know by now that evolution as an explanation of life is simply incompatible with Christian faith. Christians instead ought to be rejoicing in the relentless vindication of their theology that the various life sciences continue to provide, virtually against the will of the scientists themselves, discoveries, one after another, that have overturned virtually every necessary assumption of the theory of evolution.
Francis Collins, the director of the Human Genome Project, so a scientist of impeccable credentials and national authority, is a real Christian. Of that I have no doubt. But he is sure that evolution is true — by which I mean that life as we know it is the result of innumerable random biochemical events that, one by one and over immense periods of time, from the simplest living organisms brought into existence and built into its almost infinite complexity the vast array of nature, including the nature of human beings. However Christians qualify the theory — that God was overseeing the process or whatever, and Dr. Collins seems unwilling to say anything about that — these Christian theistic evolutionists give comfort and intend to give comfort to an atheist biochemist or paleontologist by, in effect, admitting that he or she can plausibly argue that nature did not need God to get started or to reach its advanced state. That is, the evidence for God’s hand in creation is visible only to faith and is not an artifact of nature itself. The fact is, if a Christian theistic evolutionist, whether in a Christian college or a secular university, actually argued publicly that time and chance is not enough, that nature as we know it absolutely required God both to get started and to reach its present wonder of perfection, he would be cast out of the fraternity and vilified as a flat-earther, no matter how vigorously he protested that he still believed in evolution. If he argued that, as Paul teaches, you can’t look at nature without being forced to reckon with the power and genius of the God who made it, so much so that unbelievers are without excuse, no one in the evolutionary community would consider him an insider; far from it, he would be considered an enemy of science, of rationality, of education, and so on. The pressure to conform to orthodox opinion is relentless. You would have to be in those communities to realize how difficult it is even for principled men and women to admit to a non-Christian colleague that he or she is unpersuaded of Darwinism.
I say, Francis Collins is a Christian man. He has a heart-warming conversion story. But in his recent book, The Language of God, he argued for evolution in large part on the strength of the then current consensus that much of the DNA molecule, the molecule that was the focus of so much of his professional work, was junk, that is the useless detritus left over from lots of accidental changes that had subsequently been left behind as random adaptations moved the molecule onward. A rational God, Collins argued, would not create such DNA, most of which was useless. (Collins, in fact, doesn’t say whether he thinks God guided the process of adaptive change through random mutations; he doesn’t actually answer the question whether the hand of God can be detected in nature.) But in just the few years since Collins published his book in 2006, the amount of the DNA molecule that scientists consider to be junk has shrunk considerably. Now upwards of 80% of the so-called genome has an identified function and, no doubt, they will identify the function of much of the remainder before too long. Stephen Meyer has published a significant new book, Darwin’s Doubt, valuable not only for updating the debate over evolution but for providing evidence of how many unbelievers, that is non-Christians doing research in the life sciences are now openly expressing their doubts about the Darwinist theory of origins. We have nothing to fear from the Darwinist establishment. The truth will win out! God made the world and everything in it and everyone knows it at bottom however cleverly they attempt to disguise that fact.
The God who tells us of the future is none other than the God who made us and everything else. He has a purpose for human life and that purpose will be fulfilled because this world is his and he rules over it. It has a moral purpose and so it will involve, in the nature of the case, both judgment and vindication.
Another point. You may be interested to know that Zech. 12:1 is one of the texts usually cited as proof of what is called in Christian theology the doctrine of creationism. “Creationism” in this context does not refer to how the world was made, as if in opposition to the theory of evolution, but rather to the origin of the soul. The debate between creationism and traducianism is far older than the modern debate over evolution. Traducianism teaches that the soul, like the body, is imparted from parents to children. Creationism, which is the doctrine of most Reformed theologians, is that each human soul is created by God and imparted to the body. There are a variety of solid arguments for that position, but there is also a set of so-called “proof-texts” and verse 1 is one of them. Here we find the Bible’s typical distinction between soul and body and the different origin for each, as also, for example, in Ecclesiastes 12:7 where death is described as the dust returning to the earth as it was and the spirit returning to God who gave it.
The obvious thought with which this oracle begins is that the God who made earth and heaven in the first place is able to make a new heaven and a new earth.
v.2 Remember, at the time this prophecy was uttered, the Jews were a small, insignificant, subject people, living at the beck and call of nations and empires far larger and stronger than themselves. But on the day of the Lord the vaunted nations will stagger. Such a cup, in the preaching of the prophets, was a metaphor for the judgment of the Lord which God would require the unbelieving world to drink to its dregs. This is the background for the Lord speaking in Gethsemane, the night of his betrayal, of having to drink the cup. The efforts of the unbelieving world to do Jerusalem in will lead to its own destruction. But, the assumption of the oracle is that the nations will attack Jerusalem and will attempt to destroy her. In the days leading up to the Day of the Lord the people of God will have a hostile world as their enemy.
Now notice, again a familiar theme in Zechariah, the identification of Israel in the opening line of the chapter with Judah and Jerusalem in v. 2. Israel is Judah and Jerusalem and vice versa. Of course, that was the fact. The northern tribes were gone; all of Israel that remained was what was left of the southern kingdom and its capital. But the point here is that the church will be unified in its defense against the assault of the world.
The last sentence means that the whole country or people will be subjected to a life and death struggle, not just the city of Jerusalem, as in 586 B.C.
v.3 The constant repetition of “on that day” from this point, keeps the subject of Zechariah’s prophecy clearly in view: the day of the Lord; the end of days. You will notice this phrase throughout the remainder of chapter 12, but you will find it again three times in chapter 13 and again a number of times in chapter 14. In fact, it is the final phrase of the book. The phrase is like a pulse that beats through the book’s final section. [Webb, 156]
Here the metaphor shifts from cup to rock, the immovable object upon which the nations will break themselves.
v.6 Israel will fight and she will prevail, but with the strength the Lord provides. The Lord says, “I will make them powerful against their enemies.” How often we find this in the Bible. You may remember Eleazar, one of David’s mighty men, of whom we read in 2 Samuel 23. “He was with David when they defied the Philistines who were gathered there for battle, and the men of Israel withdrew. He rose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to his sword. And the Lord brought about a great victory that day, and the men returned after him only to strip the slain.” [2 Sam. 23:9-10] That is how the victories come in the kingdom of God. Men and women of faith do battle and God gives the strength and the victory!
v.7 Now remember we’ve already seen in Zechariah that “Israel” often refers to the great influx of believers into the kingdom of God that is going to come from the Gentile world. That’s going to be made more obvious as we proceed, especially in chapter 14.
Again, the Lord will heal the tensions that exist between various parts of Israel. In Zechariah’s time there was the almost inevitable tension between the returning exiles crowding back into the country and those Jews who had remained in Judea after the Babylonian conquest. There was likewise tension between the farmers and the city dwellers but they would be brought together, unified, and they would become a great force in the hand of the Lord.
Now, as you may remember, the “day of the Lord” is a theme of the Old Testament prophets. The first instance of the use of that phrase if found in Amos 5:18.
“Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord?”
Obviously, by that time, the term was in common use. People were familiar with the phrase. They thought they knew what it meant and Amos had to disabuse his northern kingdom contemporaries of the understanding which they had. They thought the “day of the Lord” would be good for them; but, in fact, because of their unbelief and rebellion it was going to be a day of catastrophe instead. The “day of the Lord” has sometimes been called “the very heart of prophetic eschatology.” [Cited in von Rad, Old Testament Theology, ii, 119] There seems to be joined to this future day in all the prophets of the Old Testament “a relatively well-defined complex of…expectations.” There are not that many instances of this precise terminology, “day of the Lord,” in the Old Testament, sixteen to be precise. But there are any number of other forms of the phrase that obviously refer to the same thing. Taking them together, there are certain things we can say about the Day of the Lord.
- First, it is a day, a specific time, when the Lord himself will dramatically intervene in human affairs. This is the burden of the term “day of the Lord.” And there are parallels that emphasize the same personal appearance and personal activity on the Lord’s part. “We have the “day of [the Lord’s] vengeance” in Isa. 34:8; we have the day “of the Lord’s burning anger” in Isa. 13:13; and then several instances of its use in which the Lord speaks of this coming day in the first person: “the day I punish Israel for her sins” (Amos 3:14), “the day that I cleanse you” (Ezek. 33:33), “the day I visit them” (Jer. 27:22), and so on. The emphasis falls over and over again on the Lord’s personal coming to intervene and to bring things to some conclusion in the world. It is the Lord’s personal intervention that makes this coming day so cataclysmic and so definitive in its outcome.
- Second, the day of the Lord is a day of judgment. Judgment and the punishment of sin is a constant feature of the Day of the Lord prophecies. A typical text is Obadiah 15-16, where the punishment of Edom is prophesied.
“The day of the Lord is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head.”
Synonyms for the phrase “day of the Lord” include “day of doom” (Ezek. 7:7), “day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar” (Isa. 10:3), “day of vengeance” (Isa. 63:4), and so on. The language and imagery of warfare predominate in the Day of the Lord texts (as they do here in Zechariah 12.) So, the Day of the Lord is the occasion, the time when the Lord will actively intervene to punish sin.
- Third, the Day of the Lord brings deliverance and salvation for God’s true and faithful people. In the Obadiah passage I just cited, after hearing of what the Day of the Lord will mean for sinful and unbelieving Edom, we read this:
“But on Mount Zion will be deliverance; it will be holy, and the house of Jacob will possess its inheritance.”
Or take another example: the famous “Day of the Lord” passage in Joel 2 and 3, from which Peter quotes in his Pentecost sermon, promises a pouring out of the Spirit; but then we read,
“In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.
“Let the nations be roused; let them advance into the Valley of Jehoshaphat, for there I will sit to judge all the nations on every side. Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow – so great is their wickedness! Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the sky will tremble. But the Lord will be a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel.”
Everywhere in the day of the Lord texts we find this double expectation: punishment for the wicked but deliverance for the faithful people of God.
- Fourth, in the Day of the Lord prophecies we find, in a way very typical of biblical prophecy but in a particularly emphatic way, the near future and the far distant future brought together in a single vision. The day of the Lord prophesies are typical examples of what we have learned to call the prophetic perspective or prophetic foreshortening or telescoping. For example, in Amos the day of the Lord will be Israel’s destruction at the hand of Assyria in 721 B.C., but in the same context Amos sees another day of the Lord, a final day of the Lord, a day of universal judgment and a day of the consummation of salvation when the house of David will be restored and Israel together with the whole earth will enjoy God’s blessing. Zephaniah describes the day of the Lord as a historical disaster for Judah at the hands of Babylon, but he also describes it in terms of a worldwide catastrophe in which all creatures are swept off the face of the earth so that nothing remains. Out of that universal conflagration will emerge a redeemed remnant. Beyond the total judgment of the nations and the world will be salvation for Israel and the Gentiles. [Ladd, The Presence of the Future, 66-67]
In other words, the prophets saw the temporal days of the Lord, his days of judgment in their own lifetimes or shortly thereafter, as precursors of one, final dies irae, the day of the divine wrath. That makes perfect sense, of course, in terms of the prophets’ understanding of history. The prophets believed that the Lord’s final uprising against his foes would take the same form as it had done in days of old. The former, more local and nation-specific days of the Lord – those that punished Egypt or Edom or Israel – established a pattern for the later, once for all, Day of the Lord. In the latter case, the Lord’s intervention has become greatly intensified. The Lord will take all the nations of the world to task, nature itself will suffer his wrath; the event has expanded into a phenomenon of cosmic proportions. [von Rad, ii, 124] So, the lesser divine interventions in judgment and deliverance that dotted Israel’s history have become the precursors and the pattern of the ultimate and cosmic Day of the Lord.
It is this biblical pattern of temporal days of the Lord presaging and anticipating the ultimate, cosmic day of the Lord that justifies our thinking of catastrophic events as days of the Lord and calling them such. As the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. was a day of the Lord; as the destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom in 586 B.C. was a day of the Lord, certainly the destruction of Jerusalem again in A.D. 70 was a day of the Lord. The black death in Europe in the 14th century, the First and the Second World Wars in the 20th century, were days of the Lord. So was 9/11, the southeast Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina. In the same way the worldwide growth of the church, described in its consummation in chapter 14, is an anticipation of this same final day of the Lord. But Zechariah, in his final three chapters, is clearly talking about not a day of the Lord, but the day of the Lord, a fact that will become still more obvious as we proceed. It is entirely in keeping with the total teaching of the Bible to regard the last three chapters of Zechariah as one of the very important prophecies of the very end of history that we find in the Bible, a prophecy of the consummation of all things. All previous days of the Lord were anticipations this final day of the Lord.
- Fifth, all of that explains why the language of the day of the Lord is carried over into the New Testament and is used there exclusively of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We find the term in a variety of forms: the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2), the Day of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:5), the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8); the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6); the day of Christ (Phil. 2:16), and that day (2 Thess. 1:10). It took the revelation of the incarnation of God the Son for us to realize how Yahweh was going to intervene personally at the end of history. He was going to do it with the Second Coming of his Son.
This is the ultimate, final, cosmic day of the Lord that we find in the OT prophets mixed together with their expectation of more contemporary visitations and interventions of the Lord. It has the same features of the prophets’ various “days of the Lord,” though on a grander scale. For example, 1) this day is described in the same language; and 2) its nature is the same, as both bringing violent retribution against the enemies of God – the imagery of battle is as common in the NT and in Revelation as it is in the OT prophets — and vindication to the true and faithful people of God; and 3) by the emphasis that falls on its being the personal intervention of the Lord and, therefore, inescapable, inevitable, and irresistible.
That, then, is the background of Zechariah’s final oracle concerning the “day” or “that day.” Our struggle is to understand how a prophecy of the day of the Lord that embraces the entire world — as this prophecy does, as will become clear as we move into chapters 13 and 14 — can have been meaningful to Zechariah’s contemporaries in the waning years of the 6th century B.C. Did they have any inkling that what Zechariah was talking about, at least in its final and ultimate fulfillment, would not occur for thousands of years? And, if they had, would the prophecy have mattered to them?
It is, of course, precisely the problem we face today with such prophecies, whether here in Zechariah 12 or in the New Testament prophesies of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Why do you suppose that Christians throughout the ages have assumed that the Lord’s coming was just around the corner? Every generation of God’s people has been sure that the Lord’s coming is just around the corner and so far they have been wrong 100% of the time. I grew up, some of you grew up, in Christian circles in which we were taught to find in current affairs signs that the Lord’s coming was drawing near. Why? Why the pressure to do that? Because the Bible is scattered with prophesies like these that seem to make so much more sense, that seem to be so much more useful, if they are soon to be fulfilled! If thousands of years must pass before the event Zechariah is talking about comes to pass, what good is that prophecy to me today? That’s the question.
Zechariah certainly doesn’t write his prophecy in a way that suggests that millennia must come and go before these things will happen. The “burden of the word of the Lord” seems to be at hand, what biblical scholars call “imminent.” But, then, Zechariah doesn’t actually say that these events are about to happen or that they will come to pass within the lifetime of this generation of Jews or shortly thereafter. Did Zechariah know that what he was predicting would not come to pass for thousands of years? Probably not.
We have the same tension in the New Testament’s prophesies of the Second Coming. We hear that the Lord is near, we hear him say that he is coming quickly, he warns us that we must be ready because he could return at any moment; but we also hear that the master has gone on a long journey and that his servants are tempted to indolence by the fact that he has been gone so long. We hear Jesus say that he will be with his disciples until the end of the age — that doesn’t sound like he will be gone just a few days or months or years — that when he returns he wonders if he will find faith on the earth, that the gospel had to be preached throughout the world before the end could come, and so on. It often sounds as if Jesus were coming back soon; very soon. But now and again we find remarks to make us think again. Did any of the apostles know that thousands of years would separate his first coming from his second? I doubt it. It does not appear that the Apostle Paul knew that.
In one of his earliest letters, 1 Thessalonians, Paul seemed to number himself among those who will be alive in the world when Christ returns.
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive [not those who are alive, we who are alive], who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” [1 Thess. 4:15]
But clearly by the end of his life, Paul knew that he would not live to see the Lord’s return. He would go to be with Christ but Christ would not come soon enough to spare him the experience of death.
But the question for us tonight, who know very well that what Zechariah preached to his contemporaries still hasn’t come to pass these two-thousand-five-hundred years later, is simply this: what good does it do us to know that the day of the Lord may be coming but probably long after we’re gone? And, the answer to that question lies in the very nature of biblical prophecy, foreshortening as it does the future into a single, comprehensive account of its movement to its appointed end.
We are inclined to debate the chronological scenarios. Does the millennium come before or after the return of Christ or is there no such thing as a golden age of the kingdom of God in the history of the world? Even more than that, we want to know if there are signs that will indicate to us that the end of all things is upon us. But the Bible pays scant attention, I don’t say no attention, but definitely scant attention to such matters. It paints the future with a broad brush and in bold colors. It wants us to know how history will end not as a scenario (first this is going to happen, then this is going to happen and then after that this is going to happen), but as a moral event: the judgment of the unbelieving and impenitent and the vindication of those who have trusted in the Lord. And the point is, as is made clear by constant repetition, it doesn’t matter when this will happen, only that it will happen. Whether Paul died before Christ returned and so will be found in his train when the Second Coming occurs or whether he was still in the world at the time of the Second Coming was, no doubt, a matter of great personal interest to Paul, as it would be to any Christian; but it doesn’t change the nature of human life, the seriousness of the summons to believe in Jesus Christ, the nature of salvation, or the solemn reality of divine judgment. The reality of the day of the Lord, whenever it comes, invests human life with meaning, a very particular meaning. If the God who made all things and made us is also going to bring human history to an end in judgment and salvation, then that end, that day of the Lord, inevitably becomes the meaning of our lives because it is the destination of our lives. Again, as we said in a previous sermon, the fundamental assumption of the Bible from beginning to end is that whenever the day of the Lord dawns, every human being will be there! Every human being who has ever lived on the earth or is living at the time. That is why these prophesies of the end throughout the Bible are couched in language so full of immediacy and imminence. It is now, in this life, and quickly, while there is still time, that one must make the decisions that determine what the day of the Lord will mean for him or her when it finally comes.
What matters for time and eternity is that human life — and so every human being — is heading toward a final reckoning and a final and irrevocable separation between Israel and the nations, between the friends of God and his enemies, between those who will be vindicated and those who will be punished, between those to whom the Lord will give salvation — a salvation that will make even the feeblest among them like David — and those whom the Lord will destroy, between those who have heaven to look forward to and those whose future is endless woe.
I’m now in my sixties — which seems still impossible to me — and so I am much nearer to the end of my life than the beginning. What have I learned? Well, I know this: that the world you and I live in, the world our children will live in, the world our grandchildren will live in should the Lord tarry, isn’t going to become a happy or holy or peaceful place by the effort of man. Among various successes of one sort or another and amid what man can find of the temporary, ephemeral happiness that human beings can sometimes find for themselves, there will continue to be days of the Lord, sudden catastrophes that put man in his place and foretell the judgment of the wicked, that unsettle the world and keep it from being any human being’s permanent home. No matter the scorn, the hostility, the indifference, or the opposition of the world, the gospel will continue to capture hearts by the thousands and millions and hundreds of millions. The church will be beset by the nations but never destroyed. And all of this because history has an end, a telos, a terminus, a goal that has already been appointed, a day of the Lord.
One cannot understand one’s own life unless you understand human life and no single life can be rightly lived that does not reckon with the end of all human life. What we have in the final oracle of Zechariah is a philosophy of history; a philosophy of history that explains and interprets each and every individual human life. Every one of you is part of that history and it matters more than anything else that you know where that history is going because you’re going with it, like it or not.
These days in the Northwest we are agog about our professional football team, the Seahawks. If they win it will be ecstasy for hundreds of thousands; if they lose, heartbreak. People really care about such things. It is psychological compensation to care so much about something so trivial; something hardly anyone will remember or care much about a year or two or three from now. It’s a way of giving vent to our capacity for adoration, for worship, for seriousness, without having to think about the sort of things that are really important or about the God who deserves our worhship. But what does any of this mean in the prospect of the day of the Lord? Our joys and sorrows, our ups and downs, our successes and our failures: what do they really matter in the total scheme of things? Well nothing has any true importance that is not important in view of the day of the Lord. Nothing really matters that won’t matter then. Your life, every human life, is a journey to a fixed and immutable destination. Will you be delighted to arrive or terrified? That is the question that looms over human life, the answer to which is found a thousand times in the Bible. Is the Lord your God (v.5)? That’s the question put to us in v. 5: is the Lord your God? If he is, hurry on. If he is not, time’s a wasting.
Our Christian faith is, at last, a conviction about events in history: events that have already occurred and an event that is yet to occur. Everything else is learning to live in the light of those events and especially that event yet to come. Learning to take for granted what everything means and must mean in the light of that day.